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Henry Adams: Privileged Kibitzer : HENRY ADAMS: Selected Letters, <i> Edited by Ernest Samuels (Belknap/Harvard: $35; 587 pp.)</i>

Henry Adams wrote to a friend: “The only question is what we live for. Nothing seems to come of it.”

“The Education of Henry Adams” came of it, the most stimulating work of historical puzzlement that our country has produced. So did “Mont Saint Michel and Chartres,” as idiosyncratic in its questioning, if more dated.

“Education” asked, in effect: What would a Founding Father make of America at the beginning of the 20th Century? It was Adams’ patrician way--John Adams was his great-grandfather--of asking what it means to be an American. “Mont St. Michel’s” question was more expansive and gassier: What would a medieval cathedral builder make of Western civilization in the age of electricity and steel?--or, what does it mean to be a modern man?

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As a Founding Great-grandson, it was natural to interrogate the present and future through the past, though Adams was more modern than he would admit. As a patrician, he conducted the interrogation from one equal to another, and could not get over History’s failure to return the compliment. It hadn’t designed a suitable role for him, he felt; all he could do was be a privileged kibitzer.

He kibitzed in his books; he did it in his letters, which fill six volumes. He did it on the level of Horace Walpole, writing of the large and small politics of 18th-Century England, and of the Duc de Saint-Simon at the court of Versailles. He did it brilliantly and with a flourish of dissatisfaction. He would have been proud to be either Walpole or the duke; still, there was that ancestral scruple that wondered why he was not George II or Louis XIV as well.

In part, the scruple was real; in part it was a stance that would allow him inner distance from the convulsive changes of his time, stretching from the Civil War to World War I. I will get up close to the events of my time and record them with passionate intensity, he seems to tell us. But at the same time, as exiled royalty, I will not deeply care.

A burning curiosity about everything from local gossip to the deep movements of history, and a tempering indifference, are the twin pulse of Adams’ letters. Until they were published over the past nine years, they were the missing part of his masterpiece. If “Education” is his pinnacle, the letters are the rest of the mountain.

To get up a mountain we need a path or two, and six volumes is a lot of territory. For many of us, the new one-volume selection of letters is, in a sense, their first publication. For Ernest Samuels, who scrupulously and lavishly edited the complete edition, this compression must be like captaining a clipper ship on a cruise around Boston Harbor. For others, it may be the only opportunity to see salt water.

Of salt there is no lack. The capsule view of Adams shows him opposing a Puritan sensibility to the greed and vulgarity of post-Civil War American society. He did oppose them; he also enjoyed opposing them. Every time he moved back to Washington, D.C., where his friends gave him all the access he wanted, a notable vigor and buoyancy enters his letters. His suffocating panic was reserved for Boston and the New England sensibility. His seven years teaching medieval history at Harvard were among his gloomiest.

Jocularly--jocularity marks some of his most depressed moments, and, often, his dullest letters--he remarks: “I have delivered more lectures about matters I knew nothing of to men who cared nothing about them.” Acidly and grimly--these suit him--he excoriates New England as “a rather improved lowland Scotland.” Its education produces “simple minded, honest, harmless intellectual prigs as like as to themselves as two dried peas in a pod.” As for the women, they educated themselves “not for any such frivolous object as making themselves agreeable to society nor for simple amusement but to ‘improve their minds.’ They are utterly unconscious of the pathetic impossibility of improving those poor little hard thin, wiry one-stringed instruments which they call their minds. . . .”

It was much more fun to consort with his carefully chosen Washington intimates--notably John Hay, secretary of state under William McKinley--and focus on the lusty vulgarity of the White House just across from his own house on Lafayette Park. Once, when Hay was bedridden with flu and his wife went alone to a White House dinner, the First Lady complained: “I don’t understand these wives who put their husbands to bed and then go out to dinner. When I put Mr. McKinley to bed I go to bed with him.”

When he made his Grand Tour in Europe in the late 1850s as a Harvard graduate, there was still a lot of the New England prig in him, and his letters reflect it. Things began to change when his father, Charles Francis, was sent as minister to London at the outbreak of the Civil War, and he was enlisted as private secretary. Much of British society favored the Confederacy; the minister’s job was to keep the government neutral. It was a bloodless struggle but a real one. Young Adams, scion of an American nobility, found himself snubbed by the parent version. Englishmen glared at him in the clubs whenever word came of a Union victory. A dinner-table neighbor spent three hours amiably explaining that the English never admitted anyone as an acquaintance until they had known him for at least three years--and proved the point by cutting him dead the next time they met.

Pain, and the experience of playing even a small part in a large historical event, opened Adams up. It also shut down New England for him, and drove him to confront, first as a muckraking editor and then as epistolary oracle of his small circle, the changing history of his country and the world. He made of his estrangement a lens that revealed and intensified, even as it sometimes distorted.

His principal correspondents were Charles Milnes Gaskell, an Englishman who did manage to become a lifelong friend; Hay; Henry Cabot Lodge, Adams’ brother-in-law, and Elizabeth Cameron, a beautiful Washington hostess with whom he fell hopelessly and fruitlessly in love. It is this privileged circle, of course, that the letters allow us to join.

The correspondence provides no systematic account, either of Adams’ 80 years or of the world’s. There is an offhand, even frivolous reference to Lincoln’s assassination. Young Adams rose mainly to his own occasions. There is only an unrevealing letter or two to his wife, Marion Hooper--he signed himself “ever your master"--and one stoical acknowledgement of a condolence letter after she killed herself by swallowing photo developer. They had a devoted companionship, and Henry was shattered by her death, but what else there was, the letters do not even hint.

On the other hand, his passion for Mrs. Cameron, wife of a Pennsylvania senator, comes out forcefully. They were written in the course of a year-long journey in the South Seas. Mrs. Cameron had encouraged him to go; whatever her feelings may have been, she permitted only a warm friendship. Adams seemed to want more, and the letters have passages of eloquent heartbreak and despair. Too eloquent, perhaps. This, and the fact that some of his most lucid and colorful letters were written during the his exile year in the islands, make the reader wonder.

Sometimes it seems that Adams lived his life chiefly in order to write letters about it. It would be exaggerated to claim that he fell in love with Mrs. Cameron to try his hand, in middle age, at the love-letter form. On the other hand, he may have needed his antipodean distance from her to be properly eloquent about his feelings; and his declared state of hopeless love to heighten his travels.

And what more could one ask of a letter writer?


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